Do progressives really want power?

Published online 1 November 2009.

It’s an honest question.  First I look at the legacy of historical progressivism at the beginning of the 20th century.  There will be an interlude to question the progressive credentials as regards the desire for power.  I will conclude by casting a brief glance at the situation with health care reform.  The argument will be pervaded through-and-through by a class analysis, in which progressives ignore class struggle at their peril while the rich accumulate power through their wealth.

No, this is not about “patience.”  It’s about whether or not you all have the nerve to ask for what you want, and to continue to ask for it (while building your power base around those demands) until you get it.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Do progressives really want power?


Progressives have a long history of wanting to sidestep thorny issues of power for the sake of “solutions” to social problems.  The classic history of the early-20th-century progressive evasion of power is now Shelton Stromquist’s Re-inventing “The People”: The Progressive Movement, the Class Problem, and the Origins of Modern Liberalism.  Stromquist’s thesis is that the end of the 19th century was marked by violent class conflict and that the Progressive movement that was created at the beginning of the 20th century was therefore marked by a general desire among its adherents to sidestep issues of class in favor of class reconciliation.  Stromquist ends his history with a warning to “progressives” of the 21st century: the past thirty years have been marked by a politicized class warfare, directed mainly against the poorest of Americans, and that, given this political climate, the “progressive” tendency to stay aloof from class struggle in the present era has a high political cost.  As the author says at the end of this book:

Clinton era liberals were deeply shocked, then, to be accused by their right-wing opponents of preaching “class war” when they discussed tax inequities or sought to craft ameliorative legislation that addressed the health-care needs of working-class Americans.  Ironically, it was right-wing activists, not liberals, who reinjected class into the language of politics and put it to novel and polarizing purposes in the 1990s and beyond.  Liberals stood about dazed and confused, uncertain whether they too must now abandon the idea of class reconciliation for a new politics of class.  (203)

And if you think that Stromquist is being “too radical,” venture a peek into Gabriel Kolko’s old (1963) history of the Progressive Era: The Triumph of Conservatism.  Here is what Kolko argues:

Assuming that the burden of proof is ultimately on the writer, I contend that the period from approximately 1900 until the United States’ intervention in the war, labeled the “progressive” era by virtually all historians, was really an era of conservatism. Moreover, the triumph of conservatism that I will describe in detail throughout this book was the result not of any impersonal, mechanistic necessity but of the conscious needs and decisions of specific men and institutions.

There were any number of options involving government and economics abstractly available to national political leaders during the period 1900-1916, and in virtually every case they chose those solutions to problems advocated by the representatives of concerned business and financial interests. Such proposals were usually motivated by the needs of the interested businesses, and political intervention into the economy was frequently merely a response to the demands of particular businessmen. In brief, conservative solutions to the emerging problems of an industrial society were almost uniformly applied. The result was a conservative triumph in the sense that there was an effort to preserve the basic social and economic relations essential to a capitalist society, an effort that was frequently consciously as well as functionally conservative.

Thus the early Progressive movement of the beginning of the 20th century tended to ignore class conflict, and produce legislation which was fundamentally conservative.  Big deal.  What does that have to do with us?


My political concern here is about power.  The Progressives tried to rationalize the political issues of their time: thus the lives of the poor could be cleaned up, the environment somewhat defended, universal child education promoted, and so on, according to a logic which supposedly transcended the interests of rich and of poor.

That logic, of course, is where they get in trouble.  We live in a world of 793 billionaires in which half the world’s people live on less than $2.50/day.  In the US, the top 1% of families own half of all non-home capital assets.  Are we still denying that social classes are the main asset of social power in effect today?

The class compromise which underwrote the policies of the Roosevelt administration (1933-1945) and the era of populist Keynesianism (1948-1971) is no longer in effect; the elites, the ones who have the power, no longer feel the need to abide by any class compromises in order to keep the masses from rebelling.  The cessation of power by “progressives” and others has made that possible.  So, today, those who have the money buy the politicians — this has been thoroughly discussed already in terms of the money given to the Blue Dogs by the health insurance industry — and the politicians then create policies which benefit their donors.  That’s how money buys power now.

I wrote a diary some time ago about how “we need a new historic bloc.”  We need to be organizing cultural power to change political power, so that, instead of the rich winning all the class conflicts, the rest of us can win something for ourselves too.  In fact, I wrote a number of diaries about power.

What is power? pt. 5: health insurance simplified

What is power? pt. 4: we need a new historic bloc

What is power? pt. 3: direct action as grounds for thought

What is power? pt. 2: power and political hope

What is power? Peet’s Geography of Power

The point of all of these diaries was that progressives need to be paying attention to power, rather than spending a lot of time rationalizing their powerlessness while pleading before a Congress composed of people who are not with them.  So this diary is a sort of “progress check” upon those previous diaries — was anyone here really paying any attention?  Do we want the power that was discussed in these diaries?  Because, without it, we are merely stuck with the George Carlin problem:

It’s a big club, and we ain’t in it.  We, in short, don’t have their power.  This fact was reinforced by a study which came out Sunday (and was reprinted in HuffPo) which suggested that the “public option,” long the source of a political battle involving the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Firedoglake, was estimated to cover about 2% of the public when it becomes available to its maximum population in 2019.  This, I argue, is the ultimate result of pleading before power without really having it.


Do progressives really want power?  Or are they happy complaining about its side-effects while neoliberals run the show?  I wouldn’t have asked this question back in 2004.  Then, it was obvious to me that the answer was “no,” and that progressives were willing to trust Presidential candidates like John Kerry with the dirty work of actually having power.

Let’s take a look at what Cockburn said about Kerry, here, so we know we’re actually confronting Cockburn’s argument and not merely his person.  It’s good to know that one’s argument is something of substance, and not merely a collection of ad hominem sallies.  Here is what Cockburn said:

Not long before the election Kerry’s senate record was carefully reviewed by Noah Belikoff ( who researched John Kerry’s Senate voting record and the voter scorecards provided by progressive interest groups.

“Most of you know by now, (or should)” Belikoff wrote, ” that Kerry voted to authorize the war in Iraq, in favor of a massively-increased Pentagon budget, the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, and the NAFTA, that he supports the war on drugs, the building of more prisons, the right to military preemption, and opposes universal, single-payer healthcare, gay marriage, and the Kyoto Protocol. But you may not be aware of the following votes that he also cast in the Senate in the past few years, and of some of his voter scorecard ratings that are listed afterward.”

Then Belikoff’s devastating resume of Kerry’s vote followed, with the conclusion that that “A rigorous statistical analysis of Kerry’s entire voting record in the 108th Congress reveals, however, that he falls right in the middle of an increasingly conservative Democratic Party — tied with Joseph Lieberman, and only slightly more moderate than the conservative Dianne Feinstein” (This is a “real time” rating. At the time Belikoff did his survey, Kerry was tied with Lieberman. But a subsequent vote moved him into a pairing–perhaps prophetic–with Hilary Clinton, who’s not that far from Lieberman on all the essentials anyway.)

So in 2004 I might have been justified in my intuition that, no, the progressives do not want power — they simply, and viscerally, dislike Bush, and would be perfectly happy with a neoliberal Democrat as President.  (Yeah, go ahead, say all of the crap you want about Cockburn — I don’t like him either — but as long as you have nothing against his evidence you are simply wasting your time here.)

The point of my picking on John Kerry, as such, is that for twenty years, from Dukakis to the present, the progressives seem to have ceded the quest for power to various neoliberal Democratic Party Presidential candidates, and to other neoliberals in Congress.  It is high time, then, that for their sake (and for the world, insofar as the world benefits from progressive policy) they build up resumes which show that they actually are looking for some form of political power, for themselves, and for policies which are genuinely progressive.


Perhaps the issue of power was muddled for me by Jane Hamsher, back on June 23 of this year, who wrote in Firedoglake:

We need to get progressive members of Congress to commit that they will not vote for any bill or conference report that does not have a robust public plan that is:

* available nationwide
* available on day one
* and accountable to Congress and the voters

Jane Hamsher, it seemed to me, wanted power.  And I supported her in that demand, or so I told my Congressmembers.  Dennis Kucinich might want power too.  Here is what he said in his last diary here:

We compromised on single payer by backing a public option, and now we are being asked to compromise the public option with negotiated rates. In conference, we will likely be asked to compromise negotiated rates with a trigger.  In each and every step of the health care debate, the insurance companies have won. If they get hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxpayer subsidies, they get to raise their premiums, and increase their co pays and deductibles, while the public is forced to pay for private insurance, then the insurance companies win big.

Dennis Kucinich at least knows what power is; Kucinich knows that, for instance, in the various compromises which have occurred between the original demand for single payer and the present House and Senate bills, power is being ceded to the insurance companies.  “Oh, but insurance companies must spend 85% of money brought in on actual health care under Pelosi’s plan!”  Yeah, watch the accountants game that one.  I’m sure there are plenty of “expenses” which can be hidden under the category of “actual health care,” and other things which are “against the law” which they will continue to do.  Meanwhile, the important power, the power to compel Americans to buy crappy private health insurance, will be awarded to those who paid the big bucks for it.  Another class conflict won by you-know-which-group.

As pronin2, who certainly knows what power is, says in his diary here:

Liberals question how the robust PO was whipped. Even so a clear majority of dems want the Medicare PO in the House. Yet the Blue Dog version gets in the bill? Yep.

So, yeah, there’s still a question here of whether progressives want power.  Well?  Do they?

I do know, of course, that there is power in information.  If you can put forth a bill with a robust public option in Congress — well, even if it’s defeated, you can then discover who is and who isn’t standing in your way, and use that information for the elections next term.

But you aren’t going to find that out if you get no vote on the suggested single payer amendment, and no vote on the suggested robust public option amendment.  A vote on either of the current bills will only tell you who is willing to make the best of a bad choice.

I do hope, by the way, that progressives have another move in their repertoire, at this point in the game, to show that, yes, they really do desire power, power to get a robust public option for everyone (and hopefully some time way before 2019), power to throw out the Blue Dogs, power to change policy in “defense” and education and power against poverty and eco-destruction.  But about this matter I will say no more.  Now it’s your turn to show me.


Now, I’m not really a progressive.  If I were a progressive, this would be a self-examination, an examination of whether or not I want power myself.  And that would be kind of painful and scary.  But since I’m not a progressive, this is not MY self-examination here.  It might, however, be YOURS.

However, I can’t claim to be an anti-progressive, either: I think the progressives have a lot of good things to offer the world.  Progressive education, for instance, is a good thing – it’s rather unlikely in the public schools we currently have, as the progressives in Congress (for the most part) voted for the No Child Left Behind Act back in 2001 and are unlikely to scrap it this time around.  (Never mind that our current President, while not a progressive, is most unprogressive in his educational policy.)

I just want to know if you really want power.  And if you don’t want power, then I want to know this: what is progressive politics worth without the pursuit of power?


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